A Soyuz rocket recently failed—surprising news, as it's generally considered a rather reliable rocket. In the process it pitched tons of vital food, engineering, fuel and air supplies for the International Space Station into the wastelands of Siberia. And at high speed—the ISS may have to be unmanned for a short interval as a result, despite billions of dollars and decades of effort. In the post-Shuttle era, this event is critical: It puts extra emphasis on the emerging commercial space industry.
SpaceX is the most high profile of the new pretenders to the space launcher crown, having had numerous successful trial launches of its Falcon line of medium-lift rockets. It's a fairly high-profile company, and some of this is helped by the fact its CEO is none other than Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla cars. The public success of SpaceX is only likely to grow in the coming weeks: NASA has recently given the company the green light to merge two of its future planned trial flights of its Dragon cargo capsule into one single flight. That's amazingly significant, since it means as well as flying up to and approaching the ISS under its own control, the SpaceX Dragon is now permitted to actually mate with one of the ISS's docking rings. That will be an important, historical moment.
SpaceX is busy prepping the Dragon capsule for this flight, and just a few weeks ago carried out an important propellant-loading test for the Falcon 9 rocket that'll propel the capsule into orbit in November. The company has recently revealed it's working on eight separate Dragon capsules in its development facility, and has plans to eventually shrink the production schedule from three months to six to eight weeks—depending on requirements. It also has highly developed plans to build a crew-carrying version of the capsule, which could easily become the first commercial space lift to put astronauts aboard the ISS.
Late in August, Florida authorities approved an extra $7 million in funding to help SpaceX develop its launch facilites in the state, in an attempt to boost the potential launch rate of Falcon vehicles and bring perhaps hundreds of jobs with the effort. Given local high-tech job losses caused by the wind-up of NASA's Space Shuttle operations, this will be seen as a measure of how the commercial space industry can replace some of NASA's future missions.
Blue Origin is much more secretive than SpaceX, despite the fact that it, too, has a charismatic billionaire at the helm: Amazon's Jeff Bezos. The company has revealed very little about its plans thus far, apart from vague information about its vehicles—dubbed New Shepard, they're designed to launch and land vertically on retractable legs like the very best props from 1950s sci-fi TV shows.
Last week however, Bezos made an uncharacteristic public statement about a serious test failure of a New Shepard that had occured a week before. The pod—shaped like a headache pill, rather than a traditional rocket—had been taking part in a highly successful launch test. It had passed the speed of sound, and reached Mach 1.2 at 45,000 feet in altitude before the vehicle detected it was veering off trajectory, and thus terminated itself to prevent endangering lives on the ground below.
The company is already working on the next prototype, which at least explains what's going on in its 280,000 square foot facility in Kent. In April NASA awarded $22 million to the company to help it develop its rocketry systems, which may include a crewed capsule for future manned spaceflight in orbital operations, and a push-rocket launch abort system.
Orbital Sciences ranks close behind SpaceX in readiness for serious-scale commercial spaceflight operations to supply the ISS. Last week the FAA awarded the firm a license to launch its rocket system—a Taurus II rocket carrying the firm's Cygnus capsule—from NASA's Wallops Island facility for a rendezvous with the ISS. The mission, scheduled for February, will mark similar Commercial Orbital Transportation Services contracts with NASA as SpaceX is carrying out. The firm also applied for a license to test its Taurus/Cygnus stack later this year with a dummy Cygnus—that's still pending.
NASA is helping the firm revamp its Wallops facility for the launches, and a first test flight at the location is currently scheduled for December.
Meanwhile Orbital, which has been building satellites under contract for years, just won a $135 million contract to build the Ice, Cloud and Land Evaluation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) for NASA. The vehicle is a climate change observation tool, but the contract and cash award will definitely aid Orbital's greater spaceflight plans, which include a manned variation of its capsule.
Though it's a strictly suborbital operation, destined mainly for space tourism, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is the poster child of the new commercial space business. Its hardware team, the famous Scaled Composites, were behind the first non-governmental man in space (winning the X-Prize with its SpaceShipOne vehicle) and a variation of this vehicle is going to be the mainstay of Virgin Galactic's operations.
The company also recently won a contract from NASA to carry out space science launches—leveraging the super-quick turnaround time offered by a Galactic flight to optimize the design of experiments that may later go on to become full-scale ISS-based ones.
As of today phase one of its spaceport in New Mexico, the world's first such commercial venture, is 90% complete, and will be finished within a few months. The second phase is already under construction and will also be finished ahead of first commercial launches in 2013. Much speculation has surrounded the company about its greater orbital ambitions, which may see it operating in the same market as SpaceX and Orbital—funded by its space tourism business. The company certainly has the financial and business backing to make the plans work.